The Council for Work and Health has set out the scale of the occupational health skills crisis facing the profession in the coming years, with too few practitioners being trained and recruited and an ageing demographic leading to a potential retirement crisis.
The council has estimated the UK is already short of some 41,708 occupational health specialists, and the situation is going to get worse without action from Government, employers, the NHS and providers.
The warning has come in its second workforce planning report Planning the future: the implications for occupational health, delivery and training, published in March. The report is a follow-up to its 2014 report, Planning the future: delivering a vision of good work and health in the UK for the next 5-20 years and the professional resources to deliver it.
The 41,708 figure is a combined estimate of the number of specialist practitioners currently working within occupational health, across a range of disciplines, versus what the council has argued is in fact required to “provide an equitable service for workers”. The figure subtracts the current estimated number of practitioners from an estimate of the number currently required to arrive at the shortfall.
Professor John Harrison, chief medical officer at Devon and Cornwall Police, who chaired the working group that drew up the report, told Occupational Health & Wellbeing: “If we don’t do something quickly we’re not going to have a specialist occupational health workforce because of not being able to recruit enough people and because of the ageing demographic of our respective disciplines.”
The report recommended that the training of occupational health should be overhauled, to improve access and develop a stronger pipeline of required “high-calibre occupational health practitioners”, and to change its perception within the medical profession.
Within this, the council has argued that there is a need to:
- promote occupational health as a career to attract candidates for specialty training;
- encourage the training of non-specialist professionals for deployment into supervised roles;
- explore the fast-tracking of specialist training; and
- deliver occupational health in a tiered approach, optimising the roles of experts and
- specialists and increasing the opportunities to deploy generic practitioners.
It also set out five other key recommendations. First that mainstream healthcare provision should be extended to include the integration of occupational health. Second that the Government should create “incentives” to encourage investment in healthy workplaces and the uptake of occupational health and wellbeing initiatives.
The third is for there to be more work to help employers understand the return on investment in occupational health and have access to the right professionals to create healthy and productive work and workplaces. Fourth is that competency frameworks be developed to ensure the capability of the multi-professional occupational health workforce through quality assured training. And fifth that models of delivery and workforce planning capability be developed to allow for better planning of the occupational health workforce.
“One of the things that makes this report different is that it brings together the voices of so many of the different disciplines that work under the occupational health umbrella; it is a consensus view about the way forward and a very clear message about what needs to be done,” added Professor Harrison.